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REVIEW: Backstabbing Galore in The Lion in Winter

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s The Lion in Winter. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

A dysfunctional and scheming family dynamic played out at a Christmas gathering is the premise of the latest Guthrie Show.  This family is the royal family of England, however, and the Christmas occurs in the 12th Century.  James Goldman’s classic play The Lion in Winter tells us the story of King Henry II, who initially rose to power as a teenage king at the end of a civil war – and who must spend his final years confronting conspiracies from his sons and his wife.  Kevin Moriarty adroitly directs this powerful family/historical drama that favorably distinguishes itself from the Oscar wining 1968 movie starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn.

Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Laila Robins) and Henry Plantagenet (Kevyn Morrow) in a rare moment. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Laila Robins) and Henry Plantagenet (Kevyn Morrow) in a rare moment. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

The play starts out with Henry II and Alais Capet, Henry’s mistress and the sister of the French King, getting ready for Christmas celebrations.  Joining them are his three surviving sons, Richard the Lionheart, Geoffrey the middle son, and John (later known as King John of Magna Carta and Robin Hood fame).  Eleanor of Aquitaine is let out of her prison castle to join the family for the holidays.  Rounding out this group is Philip II, the new French King.

For the next two hours, there is verbal warfare between all of the parties as the three sons jockey for position in the succession planning, with Geoffrey changing sides quicker than the play changes scenes. Eleanor, meanwhile, seeks to regain some of her past power while seeking to wound Henry in revenge for his treatment of her.

Lailla Robins masterfully portrays the different layers of Eleanor who is easily one of the most fascinating women of the Middle Ages.  Eleanor was wealthy in her own right before she married the previous King of France, bearing him two daughters.  She successfully annulled her royal marriage so that she could marry the youthful Henry II, who was eleven years her junior.  She bore Henry a total of eight children, including five sons.  When Henry imprisoned her for backing her son’s rebellion against him, however,she suffered long separations and estrangements from her sons.  Robin’s heartfelt performance conveys a Queen who is still in love with Henry, but who knows that only his death will restore her freedom and some of her previous power.

Kevyn Morrow plays the aging Henry II.  Morrow initially plays a lighthearted Henry, but he later shows us the world-weary Henry who has spent his twilight years fighting against his sons’ rebellions.  He now struggles in vain to control which of his sons takes power after his death.

Geoffrey (Michael Hanna), Richard (Torsten Johnson), John (Riley O’Toole), and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Laila Robins) discuss affairs. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Johnson as Richard the Lionheart starts out low-key, but he effectively conveys the boldness of Richard when Richard realizes that his father may well kill him.  Michael Hanna is frequently funny as he plays the scheming middle brother Geoffrey.  Riley O’Toole humorously plays the pathetic and constantly outplayed teenage John.  David Pegram deftly plays Philip II, who is more than happy to use Henry’s dysfunctional family to further his own political purposes.  Thallis Santesteban plays Henry’s mistress with both anger and sadness as she shows us an intelligent young woman who has no say in her future.

Set designers Beowulf Boritt and Christopher Ash create a set piece in the style of a wooden fortress with different levels of landings.  Like many Guthrie sets, it rotates in order to effectively create the different scenes.  Clifton Jaeger’s lighting design works well with the set’s rotation to shift into the show’s changing scenes.

There is a great deal of well-played humor in the show with one of the best lines being Eleanor’s comment following her horrific verbal fight with Henry where she taunted him with claims that she had slept with this father.  After Henry storms out, Eleanor’s character states in a deadpan style that “every family has its little ups and downs.”  But this well-paced play nicely builds to the final climatic scenes.  The last scene between Robins and Morrow shows the fragility of these former lions, creating a powerful final moment.

The Lion in Winter plays through Dec. 31 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Bev Wolfe